Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Ocean or the Tiger?

I went to see Ang Lee's latest film Life of Pi today, because Samuel Delany had made some comments about it on Facebook.  Be warned that spoilers will follow.  If you haven't seen the movie yet and want to see it with a minimum of foreknowledge, stop reading now.  Of course many people who see it will have already read the novel it's based on, which I hadn't.  According to some of the comments on Delany's posts, the film stays pretty close to the book.  (Which means, thankfully, that I shouldn't have to read it myself.)
The movie presents itself as a story that "will make you believe in God." But, given the two stories that the plot hinges on, it seems to do the exact opposite--the story of the boy, the boat, and the tiger forming a precise allegory of the failure of all religions to promote humane behavior in the hidden story we are told, at the end, "actually happened" and that was so monstrously awful it had to be replaced with the hallucination we are given instead. They couldn't have come up with a better script promoting atheism if they had gotten Christopher Hitchens to write it. By the way, as a movie I rather enjoyed it--though I would have liked a film that at least tried to do what it set to, rather than the opposite, atheist that I am. But it seemed to have given up on that before it even got started.
I'd differ with Delany on something trivial but still, I believe, significant: the movie tells a story about a story that "will make you believe in God."  I presume that applies to the novel too.  I'm always skeptical about such stories,  The first such a one I encountered was Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, part of which consists of two characters telling each other how things happened, seemingly making up their reminiscences on the fly, and the reader is supposed to marvel at the instability and unknowability of reality that this represents.  Like Einstein or Heisenberg, or Schroedinger's Cat.

In Life of Pi, a young novelist beset by writer's block is told by the title character's uncle that Pi has a story to tell that will make the listener believe in God.  The novelist visits Pi, who obligingly tells his story, which makes up the bulk of the film: the only survivor of a shipwreck that killed his family (mother, father, older brother) and the entire crew of a Japanese freighter en route from Manila to Canada, the teenaged Pi found himself in a lifeboat with a survival kit and the company of a hyena, a rat, a zebra, an orangutang, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  After a few days, the survivors are reduced to Pi and the tiger.

Pi's family had run a zoo in Pondicherry, India, and were shipping the animals to Canada for sale. During his childhood Pi had become fascinated by religion.  His family was nominally Hindu, but he came into contact with Roman Catholicism and Islam, and engaged in some simple if precocious questioning.  Convinced that animals had souls, Pi tried to make friends with the tiger; his father intervened before he lost an arm, and gave a young goat to the tiger, which killed it in front of Pi.  This convinced the boy that there was no meaning in the world, and he spent several years studying listlessly, finding meaning only later when his heterosexuality erupted in his late teens, just before the family emigrated.  It's hard for me to take the boy's disillusionment very seriously.  After all, carnivores and their prey are part of the Cycle of Life, God's Will and all that.  If the tiger had taken Pi's arm off, that would be God's will.  I'm always bemused by believers' self-serving selectivity about matters like this.

Trying to survive at sea, Pi reaches a modus vivendi with the tiger.  But he still struggles with the meaning of it all.  Occasionally in extremity he cries "I surrender!" to the god or gods he imagines in charge of his situation.  I found this perplexing, though of course it's a common reaction.  After all, if there's an omnipotent, omniscient being running your life, what does it care if you surrender or not?  What does it care if you issue ultimata or collapse in a crying heap?  If you survive, is this (as Pi seems to conclude) a sign that the gods were taking care of you?  If so, why did so many other people fail to survive?

Some commenters on Delany's post invoked the book of Job, which is not very helpful.  Like Pi, it's a fable: Yahweh and Satan bet on what will happen if the righteous and blessed Job loses the protection Yahweh has so far granted him.  Satan kills off Job's family, destroys his chattels, and afflicts him with boils.  Job denounces Yahweh's injustice in eloquent speeches, and his friends reprove him: You must have done something wrong, they tell him, or God wouldn't have done this to you.  (Notice that no one blames it on Satan, quite properly.)  In the end Yahweh speaks to Job from the whirlwind, challenging him to fisticuffs and asserting his power (but not his justice); Job crumbles and admits that he is a mere worm.  Yahweh growls at Job's friends, who he says have not spoken of him what is right, as Job has, and then restores Job's fortunes, and they all live happily after.  The end.

The difference in the story of Job is that there is no real question why Job suffered.  He didn't do anything wrong; God was just trying a little experiment.  He could as easily have gone on protecting Job.  And if Job, who was fabulously righteous, could be tormented so, there's no reason to blame the suffering of other people on their lesser righteousness.  Many interpreters have tried to get around the book's conclusions, but they've never convinced me; I follow the philosopher Walter Kaufmann, whose interpretation in The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday, 1961) still makes the most sense to me.

Pi was eventually washed up on a Mexican beach.  In the hospital he was questioned by Japanese insurance investigators who wanted to know why the ship went down; this question is never answered, since Pi couldn't have known why.  The investigators questioned the truth of his tale, so he invented a new one in which his mother, one sailor, and the French cook survived with him, but the cook killed the sailor and Pi's mother and then, guilty for his crime, let Pi kill him in turn.  The impression is given that the investigators accepted this grimmer, grittier version, but their report (which Pi produces and shows to the novelist) concluded that Pi made history by crossing the Pacific in a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger for company.

Like Delany, I can't understand how anyone could find support for belief in gods in either story.  Life of Pi has a New-Agey, culture-of-therapy smugness about it that nearly drove me from my seat a couple of times.  Quite typically, it doesn't go very far in the edifying explanations it considers.  Again, possible spoiler:  Pi happened to survive the sinking of the ship because he was delighted by the storm and went above to watch it; his family drowned in their cabin.  Maybe his suffering in the lifeboat was God's retribution for his having escaped God's will, which was that he should have died with his family?  Why even suppose that the gods are on the side of human beings?  The humility that the faithful proudly claim to possess and practice tends to fall by the wayside when they consider their place in the universe.  Which is no doubt very comforting, but doesn't strike me as very profound.  I don't object to "spirituality" in films or other art; I just hope for something better than the usual pompous cliches, which is all that Life of Pi offers.  The photography and special effects are pretty, but I have this thing about substance too.